It was the sign that first caught my eye. I was updating my food shopping guide Food Lovers’ London, out visiting food shops in Holland Park. Walking up towards Notting Hill, I spotted the red, white and blue sign declaring ‘American Food Store’ in large letters above what looked like a newsagents. I crossed the road and peered in – there – past the magazines and newspapers – were shelves lined with gaudily colourful cans and packets so I went in to investigate.Sure enough, there was an array of American foodstuffs, from boxes of Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix and cans of the iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup made famous by Andy Warhol to fluorescent-coloured packets of Wonka Nerds and Bazooka bubble gum. The shop’s friendly, helpful owner, Ali Punjani, explained that this had been a newsagent and a post office, but was now indeed an American food store – known for both the range it carries and its competitive pricing. Intrigued by what he’d told me, I returned to learn more of Ali’s story and how he’d come to set up his American food shop.
“My family is from Kenya. My grandparents were traders from India who followed the British Army and settled there. We came over here when I was five. We’ve had this shop since 1972 – a little post office and a newsagents. I grew up in the shop,” explains Ali smiling “so everyone locally knows me.” When his father sadly passed away from a heart attack, Ali took over the family business, working with his mother. “It was very high pressure running a post office; a lot of responsibility. All the pubs and coffee shops used to bank with us, so we had money to count, re-count, bag up – and always the security risk, always that fear. The nice thing though was the contact with the regular customers; people I grew up with. When I was a kid it was fun because I had access to sweets!”
“About four and a half years ago, the post office shut down. It was cutbacks and an enforced closure. It was not a good period of my life. We were very upset; we cried for a couple of days,” Ali tells me, “because it was a way of life. Without the post office the shop wouldn’t survive; it didn’t have the footfall. The locals were really supportive and our customers came up with suggestions of what to do; crazy things like haberdashery or health food,” he laughs. “An American woman called Jill Ruddock said I should have American foods and do it properly, have a whole range rather than just a few items. It was a risk because we had to make a big investment and we didn’t know if it would go or not. I bought half a container load to start with. When we got the stuff, we didn’t know what it was or how to arrange it . Grapenuts – no grapes, no nuts! Cream of wheat; what is that?! Jill Ruddock came in and helped me arrange the ingredients; I couldn’t believe that she took the time to come and help me.”
Word spread among the ex-pat American community that this small shop was now carrying an extensive range of American ingredients. “I’m very grateful to that film Notting Hill because whenever Americans get posted to London and asked where they want to live they say Notting Hill! There’s a big American community here. They like the range of what I sell – other shops will have the bestsellers and the fast-sellers but I have the biggest range and our prices are competitive too – very,” he says emphatically. Such has been the demand that in addition to the shop, Ali now runs a flourishing American food mail order website. “Now we import full containers of foods from America every five or six weeks.”
Ali proudly talks me through his stock of American foodstuffs. “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – a lot of my banker customers go crazy for it. It’s because when they were at college, they ate it all the time and they’re nostalgic for it. At Thanksgiving, it’s things like cans of pumpkin, readymade pie crusts and marshmallows. Borden Eggnog – this is a must for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He gestures towards the packets of Jell-o “apparently it’s got a different texture from our English jelly. This Berry Blue is a bestseller because you can’t get blue jelly – they do red, white and blue jellies. We sold lots during the U.S. elections; they had parties waiting for the results. We’ve sold out of grits – people have grown up on it and they can’t get enough of it.“
Chatty and sociable, Ali obviously enjoys the social side to running a food business. “This stuff brings in a younger crowd and there’s lots to talk about. I learn something new every day. They educate me and tell me about the things we should get in. We had Brad Pitt and Angelina in here,” Ali tells me proudly. “A massive Mercedes Maybach with a chauffeur drew up outside and two people came in. She was really beautiful and I was trying to work out who she was and then I looked up and saw him and I said ‘Brad Pitt’ and he said ‘yes’ and I said ‘I don’t have my camera with me’ and he said ‘lucky me!’”
At the moment, the shop continues to function as both a newsagent – complete with newspapers, magazines and a photocopier – and an American food shop. Plans are afoot, however, to make it look more obviously an American food shop. “It’s the biggest part of the business. We’ve got a new sign coming. Do you know the designer Paul Smith? He helped me! He’s my customer and I asked him for advice and he drew a little sketch and said make the sign all black with just your name on it. It’ll be up soon. The shop is changing; the shelf space dedicated to American foodstuffs is getting bigger and bigger.” Having made that first speculative investment in a half-containerload of American ingredients, Ali is relishing watching his new business flourish. “My gamble paid off,” he says. “Now it’s like the whole world has opened up, so I’m really grateful for the post office closing!
American Food Store